310. Memorandum of Conversation1

After asking about each other’s health, the following dialogue took place.

President: I was impressed with the December statement of his Holiness and of his recent reply to the College of Cardinals.2 The Holy Father and I think very much alike on many issues.

I have just come from Australia where I talked with practically all the leaders of the Asian world.3 We feel we are ready to stop the fighting immediately but we can’t stop just half a war; we must stop it all. [Page 661] Hanoi has great problems but they believe the U.S. will tire and fail just like France did—and then they can win by default what they lost on the battlefield. We are being extremely careful not to widen the war by bringing in China and Russia.

One half of our people want to do more. Twenty percent of our people want to pull out. Thirty percent follow the moderate course of the President—thus 80 percent of the U.S. either follows the President or wants to do more. Twenty percent make all the noise and mislead Hanoi into believing we will give up.

So I have this problem of keeping the pressure on without widening a war. My right hand keeps the pressure steady and with my left hand we seek negotiations.

Here it seems is where the Holy Father can play a great part.

Pope: I want the President to know that I have not only given counsel to South Vietnam but I have scolded the North for not making moves toward peace.

President: I think your statements have been fair and just. I want to express the hope that with President Thieu and the new Senate President the Holy Father may be able to persuade them to begin informal talks with some of those associated with the NLF. Ultimately South Vietnam must settle its problems in South Vietnam—a settlement on the basis of one man—one vote constitutional government. Then the U.S. can come home just as we did in Europe and in Asia and spend the money we are expending on war on education, health, and all the other needs of our people.

(At this point the President gave to the Pope and to Cardinal Cicognani copies of a proposed press release dealing with this conference. The Pope objected to a line near the end of the release which said “We will never surrender South Vietnam to aggression or attack.” The Pope said that if this line were in the release it would appear that the Pope was endorsing war.4 The conversation resumed.)

Pope: I am grateful for your visit and also your sentiments and your work in behalf of peace. I will never forget our conversation in New York.5 The five points that you outlined before you left on your trip were very good. I understand very well the situation of the U.S. today. You went to South Vietnam to protect and defend a small country and now you are engaged in a great war. We must declare our own position to the world as friends of peace and foes of war. I must differentiate my position from yours although I very clearly understand [Page 662] your good intentions and your good hopes. I want to further the solidarity of my agreement with your intentions but you must understand I can never agree to war.

Perhaps the methods you are now using will not arrive at your expected goal. North Vietnam will not cease its activities—especially when it has great powers supporting it. I do not believe the war will end but I do believe that its character can change, becoming a defensive rather than an offensive one.

President: Does His Holiness believe that Soviet Russia wants this war to continue?

Pope: It is difficult to say but when Podgorny was here he told me that Russia would never abandon the cause of North Vietnam. I tried to convince him that this was the proper time to collaborate with the U.S. in peace moves but I received negative results.

Is there some way the U.S. could give an impression of a change in the character of this war to gain world favor? I am hurt and saddened that the U.S. moral position is injured by world opinion.

In talking with Vice President Humphrey6 I reminded him that the U.S. has great missions that it performs as the guardian of freedom. Your Great Society programs are applauded. But the Vietnam episode colors all this.

What can I do to come to your aid? We will continue to preach peace and to be witness to your good intentions. Might it be possible for the U.S. to give new examples of its generosity?

I have received messages from great personages of the world to plead with you to stop the bombing. The Church cannot give its approval to bombing as a means of defending liberty. Is there anybody that we can contact as an intermediary—the only one we know is the Commission and that is very weak.

Can I be an intermediary for you—I could say that I know that what the U.S. says is true—that it truly wants peace. Can you give me your assurances of this?

President: Yes, of course, and this statement that we have read says it too.

Cardinal Cicognani: But Hanoi refuses to talk. How can we overcome this?

President: We have stopped bombing five times but this only increases the murder. Now we are hopeful that South Vietnam and representatives of the NLF can talk and settle their differences locally.

[Page 663]

Pope: May I say this to the Russians: I have discussed all of this with President Johnson and he wants very much to stop this war. What will you do? May I say this to the Russians and use your name?

President: Yes. What you would be saying is essentially what the Aide-Mémoire7 says but of course we both agree that the Aide-Mémoire should not be made public.

Kosygin told me at Glassboro8 that he had word if the U.S. stopped the bombing, negotiations could get started. We said that we would stop the bombing if talks would get started. He said that he would talk to North Vietnam. When we received no word from him, we asked our Ambassador to press him for some kind of report. Finally Kosygin said “You are still bombing and nothing can be done.” Thus he slammed the door on us. We believe that he talked to North Vietnam and they told him no. We never publicized this.

When Kosygin met earlier with Wilson,9 he said he wanted to get talks started but North Vietnam said no then also. We know that China and Russia are supporting and will continue to support Hanoi. We think the Russians would like the hostilities to stop because they don’t want a confrontation. But I am not sure of this.

Pope: Unhappily, the U.S. is more exposed to propaganda than the Russians are. Please continue these appeals. Patience is needed. Everything you do for peace I will support.

President: Hanoi is simply not going to the conference table because Hanoi believes they will win this war in Washington. It will take a long time to prove but I am convinced the best avenue available to us now is in the South—talks informally between the Thieu government and representatives of the NLF.

Pope: Your suggestion for South Vietnam is good. I will encourage it.

President: It seems to me that if South Vietnam’s government would more or less leave us and talk informally with the NLF—and thereby the NLF leave Hanoi—this could be a way for South Vietnam to settle its own fate and have Hanoi and the U.S. pull away.

Pope: This is all very good but it will take time.

President: We must begin. It would be very useful if the Pope through his sources in South Vietnam could persuade Thieu and others to talk to the NLF informally. Anything the Holy Father can do to [Page 664] encourage this will be very beneficial. This would be one effective way of disengaging the NLF from Hanoi—and South Vietnam from us.

I am also very hopeful the Pope will send a representative to see our prisoners in North Vietnam and to see the prisoners being held in South Vietnam. Hanoi is ignoring and violating the Geneva convention prisoner rules. If the Pope can call on both sides to accord just and humane treatment to prisoners and ask for permission to visit both sides, we would be willing to open our doors immediately.

Pope: I urge you to have patience and perseverance in seeking peace. I believe it important for you to give new aspects to this war—to make it a more defensive war instead of an offensive war. It will strengthen your moral position in the world. You are now being accused of being unjust. You can make the same propaganda yourself by changing the war.

(At this point the President went over the press release again with the Pope. The President said that he would strike the sentence that the Pope felt was a bit objectionable. The Pope and the Cardinal both agreed that this would meet their approval.)

Cardinal Cicognani: With whom should Thieu and the new Senate President talk?

President: Thieu is a good man—honest—and a Catholic. As you know, the Catholics are in a minority in South Vietnam. In the recent election, a new Senate was voted in and a Catholic was elected as President of the Senate. They are both men of strength and firmness. I hope the Pope will encourage them to talk (and here the President smiled and gestured to the Pope) just as the Pope encouraged me to pass my education bills. We are now spending $9 billion more on education. And the Pope can claim some responsibility for this.

(The Pope smiled and offered his hands in gesture of affection for the President.)

Pope: I am hopeful that you will exploit every possibility that will lead to peace.

President: I want to do what I think is the best thing to do—to get the South Vietnamese to handle the problems of South Vietnam. We have a story in Texas about Ford automobiles carrying a slogan on the trunk of each car that said “Made in Texas by Texans for Texans.” My motto now is “Peace in South Vietnam for South Vietnam and by South Vietnamese.”

What I would hope that the Pope would do is this: Through your Apostolic Delegate or other effective channels tell Thieu and the Senate President to talk to representatives of the NLF and to do it in their own way. If the Pope would do this, I strongly believe it would offer some chance of peace.

[Page 665]

Pope: I think I can do something.

President: You can say that President Thieu is willing to have informal discussions, why not you?

Pope: Is it possible that the truce of Christmas could be extended by a day or two? Could you not show the world that on the day of peace January 1 you will also make this a day of truce?

President: My problem is this: My military leaders tell me that the North Vietnamese have trucks lined up bumper to bumper and as soon as the truce begins they start them moving and those supplies and those men kill our soldiers. On August 25 I told Hanoi we would draw a circle around it of three hundred miles and if we stopped bombing there could talks begin?

On September 10 at San Antonio I made my speech which publicized a portion of this.

I held back until October 25—and during that time they kept coming and they kept killing. Archbishop Lucey went to South Vietnam as one of my observers during the election. He told me that every time we quietened down they increase their pressure. In the 37 day bombing pause, they built up a seven months supply.

Pope: Where do they get their men, their means, their materiel?

President: By terror they are recruiting in the South—and they are now down to 14 year old boys. They are getting desperate and we are certain that we are hurting them very very much. They are using Kamikaze tactics for they desperately want a victory and they are unable to achieve one.

Pope: We shall pray for you and we shall pray for your efforts for peace.

President: Is it agreeable now for me to release this statement with the one sentence removed?

(The Pope nodded his head and said “Yes, it was agreeable.”)

I don’t want to press the point but I did want to know if I can assume that the Pope will try to bring the South Vietnamese to informal talks—and will immediately help out the prisoner problem. (The Pope nodded.)

Pope: Would you have any objection to receiving an aide-mémoire from me which would set forth my views? I want you to know that we will follow the same theme as we have before. I assure you of my loyalty and devotion to the ideals that the U.S. stands for.

President: Will the Pope be helpful in getting the South Vietnamese to talk informally with the NLF along the lines I have outlined?

[Page 666]

Pope: I will do whatever is possible. I will study the prisoner situation and see what contacts can be made. This is a cause which is close to my heart.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, International Meetings and Travel File, Vatican, No classification marking. Drafted by Valenti. The meeting was held in the Pope’s office. Valenti described the meeting in A Very Human President, pp. 286-291.
  2. December 8 and 15. For texts of the Pope’s December 15 statements to the College of Cardinals, see The New York Times, December 16, 1967.
  3. The President had been in Australia to attend the funeral of Prime Minister Harold Holt, December 21.
  4. For text of the final press release, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967, Book II, p. 1189.
  5. See Document 303.
  6. See Document 308.
  7. Document 309.
  8. Reference is to the June 1967 Summit at Glassboro. For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIV, Documents 217 ff.
  9. February 6-13.